Friday, March 17, 2023

Vector semantics and “Kubla Khan,” Part 2

I want to continue the line of thought I opened up on March 14, Vector semantics and the (in-context) construction of meaning in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.”

There are at least two reasons why vector semantics is a useful tool for thinking about “Kubla Khan.” For one thing, it seems on the face of it that it might be a useful way of thinking about the operations of the brain, where the vectors represent the states of neurons and, perhaps more likely, the states of individual synapses. But let’s set that aside.

What’s more important for my immediate purposes is that it has a property that makes it a useful conceptual tool. What’s useful about it? It provides a clear way of thinking about the conceptual space itself that is independent of any of the concepts represented in the space. The space itself is defined by the dimensions of the space. Concepts in turn are characterized by vectors in that space. That is to say, they are points in the space. More likely than not, most of the points in that space do not have a concept vector associated with them.

Given THAT, the idea that “Kubla Khan” constructs the meaning of line 36 – “A sunny pleasure-done with caves of ice!” – can now be expressed in a clear way. The poem creates vectors that define a new point in the space, a point that did not pre-exist the poem. I didn’t have that available to me before.

[Yes, I know. It’s one thing to talk about points defining semanticity individual words. It's another thing to talk about points defining semanticity for arbitrary strings of words. I assume that can be dealt with.]

During my graduate school days at Buffalo, when I’d learned about cognitive networks, I conceived of the semantics of a poem as a path through a cognitive network. That’s how I dealt with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129. That sonnet moved back and forth over a clear episodic path: desire, sex, consequent shame, [repeat], [Aufhebung], contemplate. It was easy to diagram that path and then follow the poem through it.

I couldn’t draw such a diagram for “Kubla Khan.” Unlike the conversation poems, especially “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” with which it shares some motifs, it did not have an episodic structure. Its structure seemed more ontological in character, and I’d never quite figured out how that worked. The best I could do was to think of “Kubla Khan” as moving along some ‘dimension’ that is orthogonal to the episodic dimension along with “Lime-Tree Bower” moved. The concept of vector semantics doesn’t relieve me of that conceptual burden, and it remains to be seen whether or not it gives me a more effective way of dealing with it. But still, it opens up a possibility that wasn’t there before.

Let’s consider the motif of the sunny dome. In “Kubla Khan” it is linked with that of the “caves of ice” at the end of the first part of the poem, in line 36. It then recurs at line 47, where it binds the two parts of the poem together. Moreover in the second part of the poem, subsequent to line 47, it also links the poet, who speaks these lines, with those who hear the poem and thus observe the poet.

In “Lime-Tree Bower” we simply have the image of the sun, which ends each of the poem’s two movements. At the end of the first movement STC (that is, Coleridge in his persona as a poem) imagines his friends, especially Charles, immersed in the sun’s light. At the end of the second movement STC himself is immersed in the sun’s light. The sun thus forges a bond between STC and his friend, Charles. Notice that the valence of this coupling is quite different from that of the coupling of poet and listeners at the end of “Kubla Khan.” Notice as well that it is ONLY the sun in “Lime-Tree Bower” while it is both the sun and the caves in “Kubla Khan.” The caves motif also shows up in the first part of “Lime-Tree” in the somewhat reduced form of the “roaring dell.”

I think that, to deal with those issues, it will be necessary to take up the rather more speculative matter of how the motifs in the two poems are linked to motivational and emotional modes. In “Lime-Tree Bower” the linkage is primarily to attachement and the attendant feelings of love and closeness. In “Kubla Khan” the linkages are more complex, involving as they do sexuality and will.

More later.

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